In Japan, Expats Divide on Whether to Stay

The country's large community of foreigners is split between concerns over safety and loyalty to an adopted home


The disasters that devastated Japan this month quickly revealed a resilient and cohesive society coming together. People most affected waited patiently in line for small amounts of food, shopkeepers sold their last rice balls at discount prices, and ski resorts handed out clothes to those in needs.

Tokyo's expatriate community has shown less unity; many are leaving the city or country for safer ground. But while the traumas inflicted on the nation may bring the country closer, they are pulling at the expat community.

Expats are a quirky lot. I know, I am one, having lived in Japan for two years and, before that, over two years in Lithuania. Here in Japan, they are bankers, computer programmers and English teachers. They are a mix of bravado, uncertainty, and opportunism, trying to find something abroad they could not find at home -- money, adventure, love, or acceptance. Many are just short-timers, here for the job or an experience, destined to return home or to another foreign posting. Some truly begin to adopt Japan, learning the language and finding ways to stay for the long-term.

All have stories. The teacher who became a translator; the computer geek who became an IT technician; or the banker who married local and now owns a bar. Inevitably, a split develops between the old timers -- the ones who learned the language, married local, or are dead-set against leaving -- and the short-timers, who talk over sake about the Japanese idiosyncrasies they are just discovering. These are the same discussions the older expats once had, though they are unlikely now to admit it. A modest superiority builds among the old-timers, like the way Floridians thumb their noses at pasty northern coming south for winter sun.

For some in this crowd, leaving Tokyo after the quake was treasonous. They fume on websites, calling foreigners who left "flyjins" -- a pun from the Japanese word, gaijins, for foreigner. They claim those who fled inaccurately judged the limited impact of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear mishap. And they have a point.

Many fled immediately after the earthquake. Others waited, but later took off after the unclear government reports about the nuclear power plant and the vague reassurances from a utility known to falsify records. The decision -- between living in an ongoing, seismically active, potentially radiated environment versus fleeing to Singapore -- became easy. But their departure has in some cases, much to the chagrin of locals and some old-timers, disrupted businesses that relied on their work.

The foreign media has become a main scapegoat for the exodus. No doubt the overly dramatic, 24-hour new cycle contributed to the global hysteria. (One television news producer asked me to be "dramatic" for my on-camera interview.) In some cases, they overplayed fears with headlines like "Get Out of Tokyo, Now" and on occasion made gross missteps, as with a Fox News report on nuclear dangers at a concert venue in Tokyo, which the network mistook for a power plant. That is inexcusable, but some of media's inability to report was because they too had difficulty getting straight facts and sound judgments from an initially reclusive government and utility. The media was not alone in trying to make responsible decisions in the dark. Even as recently as last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency was unable to get info it sought to make its own analysis.

Expats have continued to trickle out of Japan for a myriad of reasons. Warnings of an impending large tremors; nuclear uncertainty; a lack of confidence in the government or the utility; impending food and electricity shortages; nagging relatives; and a general choice to live somewhere without inconveniences. Those who stayed ultimately did so for one reason -- they felt safe.

One expat who stuck it out commented on a website that he had proudly endured three months without water after the devastating 1995 Kobe earthquake. Like many who stayed, he had harsh words for those who fled, commenting that instead of remaining in Japan to help those in need, they vanished without word. To be fair, many expats' connections to their home country, families, and jobs might be a bigger influence on their lives than neighbors they likely have not met.

Besides, many expats, even if they stay, will be of little use in the response. An investment banker is as useless in devising strategies to bring water to Miyagi as is a relief worker trading credit default swaps. The choice of an expat to stay may use resources better left to those in need.

Camaraderie with the locals may be a feel-good reason to stay, but even aid workers have been known to leave in uncertain safety situations, as I've learned in my work running a non-profit organization that works in regions affected by disaster . I like to think I'm not prone to knee-jerk reactions regarding security, but, after considering my personal situation and access to information, I decided to leave three days after the quake for what was to be a week away. Many times, leaving is not so much about fleeing imminent danger as it is about making a decision while still leaving open a range of options.

To be sure, old-timer expats are not alone in criticizing those who have decided to leave. There are Japanese upset that many, including fellow compatriots, fled -- in a sense, deserting them to ride out uncertainties alone.

It's almost paradoxical that so many expats, who years ago left their home countries for the security and comfort of the Japanese lifestyle, are now criticizing those who are leaving Japan for the sake of security and comfort. But they have a point -- perhaps most significantly, those who fled did not respond in typical Japanese, community-first fashion. But ironically, as expats increasingly focus on judging, criticizing, or defending one another, they are less focused on the community that now most needs their support -- the Japanese.

Photo: Passengers line up at Narita airport near Tokyo. By Issei Kato/Reuters